A deciduous tree 70, 80, or more ft high; young shoots at first covered with brownish starry down; buds very downy, 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 in. long. Leaves oval or obovate, 5 to 12 in. long, half to two-thirds as wide; more or less deeply five- or seven-lobed; the lobes ovate or triangular, toothed or nearly entire; upper surface dark green and shining, glabrous or becoming so, lower surface paler, covered with a thin, scattered scurf, and with tufts of down in the vein-axils; stalk 1 to 21⁄2 in. long. Fruits solitary or paired, scarcely stalked; acorns ovoid to hemispherical; cup bowl-shaped, about half-enclosing the acorn, the middle and upper scales loosely imbricated.
Native of eastern N. America, extending well beyond the Mississippi; introduced in 1800 but not common. The bark and acorns of this species are permeated by a yellow principle, and from the former a yellow dye, quercitron, is obtained. Despite its common name (which refers to its dark bark) Q. velutina is one of the red oak group, and among these it is distinguished by its yellow inner bark, large downy buds, and the stellate down on young leaf and shoot. The leaves vary in the depth of the sinuses, which may be quite shallow or reach up to two-thirds of the way to the midrib.
There is a fine specimen of Q. velutina at Kew by the Isleworth Gate, measuring 54 × 73⁄4 ft (1972) (see also ‘Rubrifolia’). Others are: Westonbirt, Glos., in Broad Drive, 70 × 73⁄4 ft (1969); Batsford Park, Glos., pl. 1900, 77 × 83⁄4 ft (1971); Bicton, Devon, 65 × 71⁄2 ft (1968); Curraghmore, Co. Waterford, Eire, 62 × 7 ft (1968).
cv. ‘Albertsii’. – Leaves, at least on young plants, up to 14 in. long, 8 in. wide. Raised in Holland and in commerce in Britain by 1875.
cv. ‘Rubrifolia’. – ‘About 1893, during a visit to Lee’s old nursery at Isleworth, I found growing there a remarkably large-leaved form of this Oak [Q. velutina]. They called it Champion (or Champion’s) Oak and the leaves measured as much as 15 in. in length. It figures in the Kew Hand-list and in catalogues as “var. rubrifolia”, but I know of no authority for the name’ (W. J. Bean in New Flora and Sylva, Vol. 11 (1939), p. 152). The oak in question was probably known as Champion oak, which is really an old name for the red oak, meaning ‘field oak’. By the end of the last century this use of the word ‘champion’ had fallen into disuse, and it was probably thought that it meant the oak with the largest leaves. The history of Lee’s oak is not known. The tree at Kew, which came from Lee in 1893, measures 72 × 73⁄4 ft (1972). It is grafted on common oak.